Supernal Dreams: CHRISTOPHER LEE – Now you see him… Now you don't

You can barely see Christopher Lee in THE GOLDEN COMPASS

Christopher Lee has been delighting aficionados of the genre since his appearance in Hammer’s Curse of Frankenstein fifty years ago. Since that time, Lee has gone on to enjoy the kind of late career success that eluded most of the other big genre movie stars.  Unfortunately, the flip side to all the renewed interest in casting Christopher Lee in big-budget fantasy movies,  seems to be the rather alarming trend of having his scenes end up on the cutting room floor!   

You can barely see Christopher
Lee in THE GOLDEN COMPASS.

The most drastic example of this occurred a few years ago when Peter Jackson cut Lee’s incredibly important final scene as Saruman from The Return of the King.  Now, for all intents and purposes, Lee has been cut from New Line’s The Golden Compass, as well.  Presumably Lee never had a very large part as the First High Councilor of the Magisterium to begin with, but now, what remains of his part is little more than a joke!  A single line, in a throwaway scene lasting no more than 30 seconds.  To add insult to injury, director Chris Weitz totally botches what could have been quite a dramatic entrance for Lee’s character.  
Thankfully, Christopher Lee is not even mentioned in the billing for The Golden Compass.  Presumably Lee asked that his name not appear.  Here’s what Mr. Lee told me about a similar case, when he almost appeared in William Wyler’s 1965 thriller, The Collector
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Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End – Fantasy Film Review

Ho-hum, ho-hum – it’s the same old bilge again!
Like DEAD MAN’S CHEST, the conclusion of the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN trilogy abandons everything that made CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL such a joy to watch: the clever twists, the witty dialogue, the wonderful interplay between the characters. Instead, we a get heavy-handed, tedious barrage of special effects and action scenes, loosely tied together by an aimless script in no hurry to get to the point, if any. The central premise, of pirates banding together in the fact of being hunted to extinction, is a good one, but the script squanders the idea, strangling it in a tangled of tattered plot threads.
The film seems dedicated to proving the theory that, once an audience is emotionally engaged with the characters, the filmmakers can serve up any nonsense they want and the viewers will swallow it whole. This is made most amusingly clear in the we-can-barely-be-bothered lip service explanation of why the dead Captain Barbossa could be easily brought back to life off-screen, while the dead Captain Jack Sparrow cannot (what it amounts to is: “We wouldn’t have a plot if we didn’t have the quest to rescued Jack from the land of the dead”). Read More

Pan's Labyrinth (2006) – Film Review

Guillermo Del Toro’s fantasy-horror-war film, set in the war-torn Spain of 1944, is an obvious attempt to follow-up his previous THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE, which also set supernatural elements in the context of the Spanish Civil War. The film is beautiful and frequently moving, but it cannot quite match the heights of its predecessor, due to a narrative that remains in the inchoate stages far too long, before finally narrowing its focus in the second half, at which point it lives up to all expectations and more.
The story follows Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), whose widowed mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) has married Captain Vidal (Sergie Lopez). The film begins with Carmen and Ofelia driving to an isolated mountain location, where Vidal is busy routing out the remnants of the rebels in the aftermath of the Civil War. Along the way, Ofelia encounters a large gleaming insect, rather like a preying mantis, which she takes for a fairy, because of its fluttering wings. She is also enchanted by an ancient stone labyrinth near to her new home. It soon becomes apparent that Vidal is a professional sadist who ruthlessly kills guilty and innocent alike, and his only concern for Carmen is that she live long enough to give birth to the son she is carrying in her womb. While Vidal goes about searching for the partisans, Ofelia escapes into a fantasy world in the labyrinth, where she encounters a faun (Doug Jones), who sets her a series of tasks to prove that she is indeed the reincarnated princess of the underworld. Eventually, the two story threads collide when Vidal pursues Ofelia into the labyrinth (shades of THE SHINING), where she carries her newborn brother for an encounter with the faun. Read More

Zu Warriors (2001) – DVD Review

ZU WARRIORS

This is a major disappointment from Hong Kong filmmaker Tsui Hark, who produced and/or directed some of the best fantasy films of the 1980s and 1990s (including A CHINESE GHOST STORY and GREEN SNAKE). This 2001 production, a re-hashing of 1983’s ZU, WARRIORS OF THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN, is updated in terms of productions values and special effects, but it lacks the flair and charm of Hark’s earlier productions. The heavy-handed approach to the slim story bogs the film down so badly that even hardcore fans will find their patience tested to the limits as they wait in vain hope for some of the old excitement to arise.

The setting is the mythical world of Zu, where immortals train for centuries to perfect their martial arts skills. One day, a pupil named King Sky (Ekin Cheng) is sent away by his master Dawn (Cecilia Cheung) just before an evil force destroys her. Centuries later, King Sky teams up with Red (Louis Koo) and White Eyebrows (Sammo Hung Kam-Bo) to confront the force, which now threatens all of Zu. King Sky meets Enigma, who is the reincarnation of Dawn. Red keeps watch over a mountain where the evil is gestating, but he is bedeviled by a tiny pixie that eventually possesses him, turning him evil. White Eyebrows instructs his followers to merge the Thunder and Sky swords into one invincible weapon, but the attempt fails. Then White Eyebrows tells King Sky that he has the ability to merge three great powers that will defeat the evil; only this does not work, so it’s back to merging the two magic swords, which finally succeeds, enabling victory. Read More

Beowulf comin' at ya in 3D

beowulf2.jpgConfused by the choices of where to see BEOWULF, the new computer-animated adventure? Besides standard 2D, you can view the film in Digital 3D or in IMAX 3D. What is the difference?
In an article exploring the economics of 3D presentation, Hollywood Reporter clarifies the issue. Digital 3D utilizes digital projection, obviously. There are several different brand names of Digital 3D equipment. Some require special screens; all require glasses. For the viewer, the essential point is that Digital 3D projection is limited to screens under 47 feet in height. It is simply a question of not being able to cast enough light to fill a larger screen with a bright image.
IMAX 3D, on the other hand, utilizes the patented IMAX format, which consists of 70mm film run through a projector horizontally. This allows the frame width to exceed 70mm, creating a larger image size, which in turn allows for bright, clear projection on the colossal IMAX screen, which ranges from 50 to 80 feet in height, depending on the venue.
Typically, with the stadium seating in IMAX theatres, the screen more or less completely fills the audience’s field of view, essentially immersing them in the visual experience.
The only disadvantage of IMAX is that the limited number of specialty theatres housing the bulky equipment. Digital 3D equipment can be installed into any multiplex, providing quality far superior to the hit-and-miss projection of 3D film back in the 1950s and 1980s (both of which had brief 3D fads). Some companies are working on improved systems that will accomodate larger screens.
The Hollywood Reporter article concludes:

For the consumer, all of this simply means that there are more opportunities to view a motion picture in 3-D. Shindler points out: “There are a lot of consumers that are not familiar with 3-D, and they are going to go to whatever theater is most convenient for them.”

Lewis looks forward to continued movement in 3-D. “Clearly, 3-D is where cinema is going,” he says. “We’ve seen every major studio plus major film directors embrace it. It’s going to be the platform for releasing tentpole movies.”

Movies

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Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium (2007) – Fantasy Film Review

Previously, I gave a brief preview of the festering awfulness that is MR. MAGORIUM’S WONDER EMPORIUM. With the film opening today, I’m back to provide specific details on what went wrong. In a nutshell, MAGORIUM is so insufferably pleased with itself – without doing a single thing to earn the self-congratulations – that you want to grab the film by the lapels and slap the silly smile off its face. Writer-director Zach Helm (who scripted the excellent STRANGER THAN FICTION) takes the “wonder” in his title for granted, and assumes his audience will as well; anyone who does not, is assumed to be a dreary old stick in the mud, unworthy of consideration.  The problem is that, when you take wonder for granted, it ceases to be wonderful; it becomes commonplace. For all its computer-generated effects and colorful sight gags, MAGORIUM is a dreadfully prosaic movie, lacking charm and grace. Read More

Pushing Daisies pilot is TV ratings winner, but does it deliver?

Lee Pace stars as a man whose touch revives the dead. Propelled by strong advance word from critics and by an enticing advertising campaign, ABC’s PUSHING DAISIES made a strong debut on Wednesday, with a 4.2 rating/12 share in the adults 18-49 demographic. With an average of 12.8-million viewers over the course of its opening hour, the show handily one the 8:00pm time slot. So, the show is a critical favorite and it’s popular with audiences, too. That means it must be good, right? Not necessarily.
Once you get past the hype and the pretty colors, the debut episode of PUSHING DAISIES was too precious for words – a fact underlined by the cutesy title “Pie-lette.” (Get it? It sounds like a TV “pilot”; it looks French, which is supposed to be cool; and the leading man bakes pies.) Other writers have already noted the Tim Burtonesque visual qualities in Barry Sonnenfeld’s direction (artificially enhanced colors to create a storybook tone), but the borrowing extends to the script by series creator Bryan Fuller. The childhood era prologue – in which hars topics like death are treated with an off-hand tongue-in-cheek manner – seems deliberately to invoke the children’s fiction of Roald Dahl. There is also an extensive, omniscient voice-over narration a la HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY, which pretty much tells the whole story; the main difference is that the HITCHERK narrator was actually funny. Read More

Ghost Whisperer: "The Underneath" – TV Review

The third season of GHOST WHISPERER launched on Friday night, September 28, with “The Underneath,” which picked up from the conclusion of last season’s finale “The Gathering,” showing series lead Melinda Gordon (Jennifer Love Hewitt) literally having her head examined thanks to a cranial close encounter with a falling object. The new episode suggests that Season Three will be occupied with sorting out the personal implications of Melinda’s ability to speak with the dead, who now include her missing father; along the way she will continue to help others whose loved ones need to send a last message before moving on into the light.

The story has Melinda suffering a series of frightening visions, involving spirits rising up from underground to attack her. She initially suspects her father Tom (Martin Donovan) is haunting her, precipitating a visit to her mother Beth (Anne Archer), who is less than helpful. A reluctant Beth, who was never comfortable with her own powers, eventually reveals that decades ago she refused to deliver a message from a ghost who had died in an underground gas explosion; this ghost, not Melinda’s father, is responsible for the haunting. It is up to Melinda to set the ghost to rest by delivering the long-delayed message.


The episode has some nice touches, such as the sight of Professor Rick Payne (Jay Mohr) spilling his guts about how much he cares for Melinda – only for the camera to pull back and reveal he is rehearsing a speech that he never in fact delivers. And there is an effective scene wherein Melinda encounters an uncooperative librarian and a friendly ghost – only for the ghost to turn out to be no so friendly, once the lights are out.
The season opener benefits from Hewitt’s maturing features. She was always pretty, but she is starting to develop something like character in her face. Don’t expect any Emmy Awards soon, but she no longer looks like a model pretending to be an actress. If the rest of the season follows this episode’s lead, we will probably see more of Melinda exploring the mystery of what happened to her father while fending off the threatening ghosts warning her to mind her own business.

Jennifer Love Hewitt models one of her many low-cut gowns.Still, it seems unlikely that GHOST WHISPERER will ever be much more than a SIXTH SENSE knock-off, spiced up with the sex appeal of Hewitt, who models a series of low-cut dresses throughout the episode. As appealing as the sight is, it borders on tongue-in-cheek, especially when Hewitt appears in a flowing nightgown that seems modeled after the artwork on the cover of a paperback Gothic-romance novel. In a way, the series might be more amusing if it simply took the big leap into camp instead of edging toward dark, dramatic territory.

With its hints of unspeakable horrors lurking below (whom the previews show will be returning in later episodes), “The Underneath” seems to be setting up a third-season confrontation with the denizens of Hell. Unfortunately, the horror shtick seen so far is too mild to be genuinely frightening, and the last thing we need is another series about a hot chick battling evil forces in her small home town. If we want that, we can watch DVDs of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER.

GHOST WHISPERER: “The Underneath” (Season Three, Episode #1, Friday, September 28). Written and directed by John Gray. Cast: Jennifer Love Hewitt, David Conrad, Camryn Manheim, Jay Mohr, Anne Archer, Martin Donovan, Grace Fulton, Brandon Lim

Genre TV shows on the way

Lee Pace and anna FrielIt seems this season will be filled with genre television shows. NBC’s BIONIC WOMAN made its debut on Tuesday. Tonight we have the return of CBS’s GHOST WHISPERER at 8:00pm, followed by the vampiric MOONLIGHT at 9:00pm. But according to Variety, the show we really should be anticipating is PUSHING DAISIES, which plants its first seed on Wednesday, October 3:

Standing head and shoulders above this fall’s other seedlings, “Pushing Daisies” is whimsical, romantic, funny and visually distinctive — such a delicate mix of ingredients, frankly, you fear for its longevity in the cold, cruel world of primetime. The producers are seeking to offset that fragility by incorporating a procedural element into this tale of love and death, but that only invites skepticism the souffle will collapse by episode four or five. Such commercial considerations, however, shouldn’t detract from this beguiling pilot, and credit ABC with taking the season’s boldest leap in hoping that love conquers all.
Director Barry Sonnenfeld has already winced at comparisons to Tim Burton, but given the exploding color scheme and fairy-tale trappings (including narration by Jim Dale, reader of the “Harry Potter” books on tape), they’re all but unavoidable, and in a good way.
Series creator Bryan Fuller previously explored the great beyond in “Dead Like Me,” but this is a far more impressive construct, built around Ned (Lee Pace), who discovers at an early age that he possesses the power to bring the dead back to life with a single touch.
The tradeoff: If he touches that person again, they die forever — and leaving the resurrected alive causes someone else in the vicinity to drop dead, achieving a weird kind of cosmic balance.
Ned has found a way to eke out a living from this talent on two fronts: His dazzling pies, where his touch invests the fruit with tremendous flavor; and moonlighting with a detective (Chi McBride) who inadvertently witnessed his gift first-hand, reviving murder victims long enough to find out who killed them and split the reward. Still, it’s a detached, emotionally frigid existence, as his coworker Olive (the ever-adorable Kristin Chenoweth) points out.

The Brave One slays Dragon Wars

Genre films were shut out of the win, place, and show positions at the box office this weekend, despite the debut on 2,275 screens of DRAGON WARS. THE BRAVE ONE – a new action pic starring Jodi Foster – was #1 at the box office; 3:10 TO YUMA arrived in second, and MR. WOODCOCK wedged into third.
Although DRAGON WARS had set box office records in its native Korea, the film earned an unimpressive $5.38-million, surely less than distributor FreeStyle Releasing was hoping for. Yet company co-president Mark Borde tried to put a happy spin on the numbers: “We are very pleased with the opening and look forward to a long and healthy run,” he said.
The only other genre film in the U.S. Top Ten was Rob Zombie’s HALLOWEEN remake, which slipped from second to sixth place in its third weekend of release. The film earned an additional $5.01-million, raising its total to $51.26-million.
Overseas results were little more impressive for sci-fi, fantasy, and horror films. THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM seems to be knocking everything else off the charts, leaving little room for genre films to flower. Still, a few titles showed some signs of life.
The animated comedy THE SIMPSONS MOVIE was second overall behind BOURNE, amassing $10.5-million on approximately 3,000 screens in foreign markets, raising its overseas total to a whopping $321-million.
Disney’s RATATOUILLE scampered into third with $5.5-million in 3,092 screens spread out over 34 territories.
SHREK THE THIRD was in fourth with $5.3.-million on 1,700 screens in 64 markets.
The psycho-killer thriller DISTURBIA grossed an estimated $1.4-million on durings debut on 405 screens in the U.K.
So far, the big winners in foreign markets are EVAN ALMIGHTY with $54.2-million, TRANSFORMERS with $381-million, and HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX with $639-million. Unfortunately, the whimsically wonderful STARDUST did little better overseas than in the U.S., earing a total of $17.4-million.
Read the complete U.S. Top Ten here. Read foreign box office figures here.